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McDavid, Matthews among growing wave of young, impact players

Many age 24 and under making presence felt across NHL early in season

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- At age 24, Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele is not old. Far from it. But whenever he thinks of his recent experience playing with Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, he certainly feels that way.

For three games during the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Scheifele centered a line between the two generational players, each 19 at the time, and got an up-close look at two of the key figures in the wave of young talent making its mark on the NHL this season.

"They made me feel like a veteran," Scheifele said, "but it's definitely the most fun I've ever had playing hockey.

 

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"It's crazy. They're both unbelievable players. It's awesome seeing them come into their own. … But it's more than just Auston and Connor. The influx of young, skilled players who are making impacts on the NHL is growing with every season."

Scheifele said that before the Jets played the Maple Leafs last Wednesday. Beginning with that opening night of the NHL season, his comments have proven to be quite accurate.

Indeed, Matthews and McDavid each began the season in impressive fashion. Matthews had three points (one goal, two assists) in Toronto's 7-2 victory at Winnipeg. McDavid scored a hat trick in a 3-0 win against the Calgary Flames.

The opening night performances of Matthews and McDavid, each 20, were merely the curtain-raisers when it came to outstanding games by players 24 and under in the first week of the season.

Video: CGY@EDM: McDavid cashes in on the rebound

On Thursday, Chicago Blackhawks left wing Ryan Hartman, 23, had five points (goal, four assists) in a 10-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Blackhawks left wing Brandon Saad, 24, had a hat trick in the same game.

On Friday, Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point, 21, had three points (goal, two assists) in a 5-3 victory against the Florida Panthers.

On Saturday, New Jersey Devils defenseman Will Butcher, 22, had three assists in a 4-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche. Later in the day, Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau, 24, had four points (goal, three assists) in a 6-3 win against the Jets.

On Sunday, 24-year-old New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, who scored two goals in a 4-2 loss to the Avalanche on Thursday, and defenseman Brady Skjei, 23, scored in a 2-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens.

On Monday, Matthews was at it again, scoring in overtime to give the host Maple Leafs a 4-3 win against the Blackhawks. In Buffalo, Devils left wing Jesper Bratt, 19, had three points (two goals, assist) in a 6-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres. And in Edmonton, Scheifele's teammate Nikolaj Ehlers, a 21-year-old left wing, scored three times to help the Jets defeat the Oilers 5-2.

The opening week of the season officially came to an end Tuesday with three rookies leaving their marks on the score sheet. Philadelphia Flyers center Nolan Patrick 19, scored his first NHL goal in a 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators; Blackhawks right wing Alex DeBrincat, 19, did the same in a 3-1 victory against the Canadiens; and Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Sonny Milano, 21, scored his third and fourth goals of the season, including the overtime winner, in a 2-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Video: CBJ@CAR: Milano nets second goal on breakaway in OT

Also on Tuesday, 23-year-old Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored two goals, including the game-winner with 35.5 seconds left.

Welcome to the NHL in 2017-18, when youth definitely is being served.

As part of Team North America, which consisted of players 23 and under, McDavid could see this trend coming. That group captured the imagination of fans with its speed and skill en route to a 2-1 record. A tiebreaker kept it from reaching the playoff round, but Team North America prepared the hockey world for the crop of kids poised to be a presence in the League.

"I think it's nothing but good stuff," McDavid said of the message sent by Team North America. "It's a true sign that the young guys are good players and the future is really bright."

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sees the youth movement as a reflection of philosophical changes in minor hockey.

"There's definitely a maturity factor that the young players have," Cheveldayoff said. "They've kind of been brought up in the system now.

"It starts at a very young age where it becomes a business for them in that they train all year-round. The athletes understand their bodies so much better. When they come to training camp, they understand better and better and better what it takes. The vets know what it takes to stay. It's the ones who can't do that, they're the ones who have the most trouble being able to stay."

Video: WSH@TBL: Kucherov goes top shelf on the backhand

Given the trend, Cheveldayoff understands the importance of signing young, foundation-type players for the long term. Last Wednesday, Ehlers and the Jets agreed to terms on a seven-year, $42 million contract. One day earlier, center Jack Eichel, 20, and the Sabres agreed to terms on an eight-year, $80 million contract extension. On July 5, the Oilers signed McDavid to an eight-year, $100 million extension, and on Aug. 16, they signed center Leon Draisaitl, 21, to an eight-year, $66 million extension.

Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello will have similar decisions to make with Matthews, right wing Mitchell Marner, 20, and right wing William Nylander, 21; each is eligible to become a restricted free agent within the next two years. Lamoriello believes the collective bargaining agreement is the reason such deals are being given to younger players.

"I think the system has created that with free agency at 27 or the number of seasons they've been there," Lamoriello said. "You have to decide on certain things because it comes on you pretty quick. So I think it's free agency."

Beginning in 2008-09, players could be eligible for unrestricted free agency when they reached age 27 or when they played seven NHL seasons. Under that stipulation, a player drafted at 18 could become an unrestricted free agent at 25.

Given all that, NHL GMs are looking to lock up their budding stars ahead of their prime years.

"Kids are more prepared to play in the League now," Lamoriello said. "It's a generation change. And it's the younger generation that is stronger and younger and more mature. That's the generation we're in right now.

"That's the growth of the game. That's the growth of all these under-16s, under-17s tournaments that go all summer long. You never before saw these tournaments like you see right now all over the world in the summertime. And they're playing 12 months a year. That's impressive. That's the same thing you are seeing in my opinion in baseball."

Video: CHI@TOR: Matthews snipes top-shelf OT game-winner

Yes, the season is 1 week old. And yes, some of the graybeards out there, like 32-year-old Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, who had seven goals in his first two games this season, are making sure the veterans are well represented among the scoring leaders.

Ovechkin finished tied with Matthews and two other players (Jamie Benn, Mikael Granlund) for 20th in scoring last season with 69 points. Five players under 24 finished above them: McDavid (NHL-high 100 points), Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (85 points), Scheifele (82 points), Draisaitl (77 points) and Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (age 21, 70 points).

Up next for Matthews: a game against Devils rookie center Nico Hischier, 18, at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; SN, MSG, NHL.TV). It will feature the No. 1 picks from the past two NHL Drafts -- Matthews in 2016, Hischier in 2017.

And for these two, like so many emerging young talents around the League, the future is now.

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